When you’re not a parent, it is easier to say, “Look at how that kid is behaving!” or “If that were my child, I would…” Once you become a parent, it is suddenly more difficult to decide what to do in every situation when your kids misbehave (and they will). As a local representative for Go Au Pair and first point-of-contact for our local Au Pairs and Host Families, I am a resource for creative ways to keep kids happy and well-behaved. In fact, our agreements state that Au Pairs are never to yell at or spank the children in their care – a regulation, not a suggestion. This is where my 14 years experience as a teacher comes in handy (not to mention being a mom of six of my own little beauties).

I should mention it is important to get to know the kids in your care (obviously) so one can identify possible triggers or warning signs the child may have a problem. Involve your family pediatrician. Behavioral issues can range from just not listening to pinching or biting, to destructive behavior or yelling and throwing things. It is vitally important for all parties, parents, caregivers and even, to some extent, the child, to be “on the same page” or in concert, about expectations for acceptable behavior. It should be make clear to the child what behaviors are unacceptable and how he or she should be acting. Physical aggression towards others should never be allowed or accepted.

My suggestions are from least to most intrusive, but physical aggression may require immediate, more intrusive intervention sooner than later. Try these creative solutions when kids act up:

Distract – This works best with toddlers and little ones, but can be used on older kids too. Bring attention to something else of interest. It could be as simple as saying, “Look at that bird!” while removing an object of issue. Older siblings can be great helpers when you’re caring for multiple children. Little ones nearly always want the attention of older siblings, or to play with or look at their stuff. Unless that is the original problem, use this to your advantage when you see younger ones beginning to have a problem.

Redirect – Similar to distraction, redirecting a child’s attention or physical orientation can change behavior immediately. Moving a child’s stroller or high chair can redirect a fussing baby. Introducing the next step or a new activity is a great way to redirect a child just before they act up. Redirection is not physical intervention like grabbing a child. Unless the negative behavior is physically harmful, like running in a parking lot, physical intervention should be avoided.

Positive reinforcement – Reward good behavior. Tell a child when he or she does the right thing, even if it’s only close. Reward with words and actions. Tell a child, “I love how you used your manners!” or “You make an excellent kitchen helper!” When the child only approximates what you expect, say, “Great job! Just a little more…until it’s flat, or clean, or full.” Don’t reward bad behavior. Be simple and matter-of-fact: “Your shoes are not on, so we cannot leave,” or “Your room is not clean, so we cannot go to the party.” Be even more specific: “When your shoes are in the closet in pairs, we can go to the playdate.”

Count to three – Programs like 1-2-3-Magic made this method popular to get defiant kids moving and help parents nag less. Essentially, tell the child the expected behavior, like putting toys in a toybox. Determine in advance what happens when you get to three and tell the child. “I am going to count to three and you need to start putting your toys away or (I will help you, no dessert after dinner, no tv time – you choose).” Pause to give a moment for compliance, then count, slowly, to three. Then stick to what you said. If it is helping them (for toddlers), just do it hand-over-hand, with your hand helping their hand pick up a toy and place in the box. For other consequences, keep your word but don’t make the consequence greater than the desired task. For example, if the child needs to pick up toys, the consequence for not doing so should be small, like no dessert, not huge, like no tv for a month.

Time-out – Relatively successful when used sparingly, time-out has been around for ages in one form or another. Simply done, time-out is similar to counting to three, except the consequence for not doing the desired behavior by the count of three is being removed from the situation altogether (it also serves to give the parent a few minutes to calm down and assess). This can be achieved by designating a specific location, like a chair, the stairs or a bedroom, for time-out to occur. Time-out is often timed, with the duration being one minute for each year of the child’s age, so two minutes for a two year old, and so on. The ending of time-out differs widely, with some allowing the child to howl and yell the entire time and then rejoin family or group activity when the stated time is up (not a good plan), others requiring silence before the time even begins (perhaps slightly rigid), and still others requiring an apology for the specific misbehavior so the child understands what he or she did wrong (happy medium maybe).

Not every method is right for every child or every caregiver. In fact, no one tool is the best, but many tools are best used in concert to create a positive environment for everyone. Spending time doing activities, playing games, talking or just being together can build rapport and trust. Earning privileges works great for older kids, once these methods have worn out. Use checklists and wipe-off boards to keep track of multiple kids and their chores or behavior. Reward whenever possible, but not when it is not deserved. Simple communication of expectations will reap rewards, no matter the age of the child. Finally, always let kids know you are their caring coach and guide while they are in your care and take every minute of your job seriously.


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